The Last Stand of the Heroic Kurds at Kobani

Kurdish Peshmergas
A group of Kurdish Peshmergas at the Qarasukh mountains near the town of Makhmur August 18, 2014. Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

The nightmare for Kobani’s parents began on Friday 30th May. Every year, high school students from the Kurdish district of Northern Syria take the bus to the provincial capital of Aleppo to take their examinations. Since the Syrian revolt spun out of control and militant Islamists from around the world began flocking to join the insurgency against the Syrian regime, however, the journey has become extremely perilous. This year, about a thousand parents decided to take the risk anyway. They were careful to take precautions. Proceeding in convoys of buses, the girls wore the full niqab, and all were instructed not to carry anything that the puritanical Islamists of the Islamic State (IS) might construe as breaking their siege of Kobani.

It didn’t work. On the journey back, close to the Islamic State redoubt of Minbej, a group of nearly 150 boys was stopped by IS fighters and escorted to a religious school in Minbej to undergo ‘reform’ via training in its fundamentalist reading of the Koran. Two boys escaped four days after the kidnapping, while 15 others were released as part of a prisoner exchange at the end of June, but the vast majority of their classmates – about 130 boys aged between 14 and 16 – remain guests of Islamic State in Minbej. Speaking in his father’s shop in the city of Kobani, one of the boys who escaped, a brawny, freckled 15-year-old called Mustafa Hassan, claimed that IS hosts disciplined the unruly among them via beatings with an electrical cable.

For every 17 boys, one was appointed an Emir (Prince) and instructed to keep control of everyone else in the group; prior to his escape, Hassan himself had been chosen for the role. His group was called the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi group, or battalion, named after the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by the American bomb in 2006.

“I saw a lot of Russians, Chechens. Libyans, some Saudi Arabians and Syrians too,” he says. “‘If any of you try to escape,’ one of them warned us, ‘we will behead you.’” The boys were asked whether they wanted to become jihadis, whether they wanted to join ISIS, as it was then known. In case they were in any doubt about the sincerity of the offer, Hassan saw a military compound behind the religious school; boys as young as ten, he says, were playing football in between being trained with Kalashnikovs.

The missing Kurdish boys are only the most visible symptom of a vicious war in Northern Syria. On one side is a Kurdish militia called the YPG, and on the other is the same uncompromising, millenarian offshoot from Al-Qaeda called the Islamic State (IS) which has ballooned to control much of the Sunni heartlands of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq.

In the last two weeks, as the Islamic State has rampaged it’s way through Iraq and driven out and threatened hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and Christians, the Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga militia have struggled to protect Kurdish areas. By crossing the border the YPG have, by all accounts, done much of the dangerous work in protecting Iraq’s minorities from attack and in ferrying them back across the border to the relative safety of Syria – so much so that when American special forces arrived, many of the Yazidis taking refuge in the Sinjar mountain range had already been ushered to safety.

YPG Youth Parade A YPG youth parade the morning after the deaths of four civilians by shelling in Boraz. James Harkin

Long before western politicians identified the Islamic State as Public Enemy No.1, the Kurds of Northern Syria were fighting a rearguard action against them, almost entirely alone. Headquartered in the nearby province of Raqqa, the Islamic State boasts a number of smaller territorial holdings (what it calls emirates) in the adjoining province of Aleppo. To build its state, it’s been working hard to consolidate those holdings and link the emirate of Jarablus in Aleppo to Raqqa, but to do so it needs control of the roads that run through Kobani.

Syria’s Kurds, meanwhile, are engaged in their own kind of post-Syrian state-building operation. At the moment they’re concentrated in three enclaves in what the Kurds called Rojava in North Syria. Much like the Islamic State, their ambition is to join two of these areas, Kobani and Jazira, together via a border crossing with Turkey at Tal Abayd. The problem is that Tal Abayd, once in the hands of the western-friendly Free Syrian Army, is now firmly under the control of the militants of Islamic State. Kobani has slowly become the epicenter and the crucible of a fight to the death. For over six months, it’s been under a crushing, increasingly desperate siege on three sides by fighters from the Islamic State – and by the Turkish authorities on the fourth.

There are good reasons that the siege of Kobani went largely unreported. The Kurdish areas are under the tight control of a political party called the PYD, whose YPG (People’s Protection Units) militia is closely allied to the Kurdish PKK. Since the PKK has been fighting against Turkey for 30 years, and remains on lists of proscribed terror organizations in the US and Europe, the international community has been slow to afford them the same kind of rhetorical and tentative financial support as that given to the Free Syrian Army.

Ayn al-Arab, known to its Kurdish inhabitants as Kobani, is both a city and a province; its population, already several hundred thousand before the Syrian crisis, has now swelled to half a million people, almost exclusively Kurdish. Since the mortars of the Islamic state can’t reach the city itself, life there appears to be tranquil and safe compared to the rest of rebel-held Syria. Appearances, however, are eerily deceptive. Conversations with Kobani residents at the end of June revealed a through-the-keyhole world, in which Kurdish Syrians travel at their peril, have only ramshackle access to essential services, and face the ever-present risk that their whole way of life might suddenly collapse.

Few people have any real jobs here; young people who were planning a career elsewhere in Syria, or who were aiming at a University place, are now stranded here indefinitely. “We are blocked on all sides,” said a 26 year old called Perwer, who spent a nail-biting week in the custody of the Islamic State when he attempted to leave for Turkey.

An 18-year-old girl called Rozana spoke wistfully of her plans to study and then work in the big city of Aleppo; perhaps wisely, her parents refused to allow her to make the trip. Like every young person I met, she remains trapped in suffocating limbo, unable to take her exams or go to University for another year, and possibly much longer. “It’s safe here. But it’s a big prison,” she said. Many millions of Syrians on both sides of the conflict survive on between two and three hours of electricity a day, but, for the last six months, Kobani residents have had no access to electricity grid at all; like the water supply it comes from IS controlled areas, and has for over six months been cut off to choke Kobani into submission.

The violence is never far away. A few hours after I arrived in the city came the wailing of sirens as Kurdish Red Crescent ambulances, and many locals, congregated in the city hospital. A village 40 kms away called Boraz had been shelled by IS and the injured were beginning to arrive. One man lay on a stretcher in front of me, having bled to death from a mortar, which had torn off his leg at the knee. Four people had been killed, said a medic, and many more were wounded; all were civilians. The 13-bed hospital here, like the flour mill across the way from it, is barely a year old. The facilities are dire; blood dries on the floor, stretchers are strewn in the corridors because of the lack of beds, and what few pieces of medical equipment are in evidence are powered fitfully by a local generator. “One thousand wounded have graduated from this place,” said the same medic.

Kurdish fighters YPG soldiers man a sandbagged fortification at the frontline. ISIS's positions are less than a kilometre away. James Harkin

As mothers and wives wail over coffins of the dead, one middle-aged man speaks his mind: “They are attacking us because we are Kurds, not because we are with the YPG,” he said. “We appeal to the United Nations and the human rights groups. Islamic State is attacking us and the great powers are silent.’” It was not strictly true. The Islamic State’s war is avowedly not with the Kurds per se but with their political representatives in the PYD and YPG, whose crypto-communist ideology appears to them as godless apostasy.

According to one official in Kobani, several hundred other Kurds, as well as the schoolboys, had been kidnapped in the last few months; men, families, some children even two pregnant women. Some are believed to be already dead. Maysaa Abdo, a member of the YPG’s Military Council in Kobani,  said that the Free Syrian Army had tried to attack IS positions in a nearby village. When they had failed they retreated back to Boraz, closely followed by a volley of mortars from IS. “They are attacking randomly.” Was she angry with the Free Syrian Army? “We are not angry because they are fighting Da’ash [an abbreviation for the Islamic State popular among Syrians], but they failed. And all this fell into our laps.”

The same Free Syrian Army, she complained, had been fighting against the YPG six months previously; now they were fighting alongside them. “It has all turned upside down. At first, when the battles started, ISIS tried to take the Free Syrian Army as a puppet. We, the YPG, kept telling the FSA: they will kick you out.”

Did she have a message for Western governments? “Western societies need to ask themselves why so many people come here. They say that ISIS is so dangerous, but many people are being beheaded in front of our eyes and they are silent. They are just sending us aid, but we don’t want aid, they are killing us.” With no international support, the YPG raises funds among ordinary Kurds, she claimed, buying its weapons from smugglers. “Syria has become one big market for weapons; you can buy anything if you have money.” One hundred and twenty YPG fighters had been martyred in the previous year in Kobani, she says, including 13 women from their female battalion. Does she ever talk to her enemies on military radios? Not much, said Abdo; there was one occasion she’d phoned a male colleague of hers on the battlefield, only to find a fighter from the Islamic State on the other end: “We have just beheaded your friend. And we are coming to behead you.”

Thanks to Abdo I was given permission to visit the frontline. At a sandbagged hillock named after a Kurdish fighter who’d died there, and overlooking IS positions at the Euphrates river and the tomb of Suleiman Shah, a genial YPG spotter pointed out IS fighters driving heavy machines in pick-up trucks around the villages that it controls on the other side of the line. Then, he trained his binoculars on a wheat factory from where IS fighters launch mortars, sniper fire and machine gun rounds in his direction. The spotter, explained another soldier, was deaf and dumb.

On the other side of a barbed wire fence, the tracks of a tank were clearly visible as it had attempted to make its way up the hill and breach Kurdish lines; the Islamic State, unlike the Kurds, have commandeered tanks and use them regularly here. The last such attack on the position, according to the soldiers here, took place 45 days before I arrived. They’d attacked at night and had eventually succeeded in overrunning the position, killing many. But they’d done so only at the expense of up to 100 dead and only for 24 hours; a day later, claimed the same soldier, the YPG had been able to win it back.

At another sandbagged position nearby, I found young women from the YPJ were firing warning shots at what they suspected might be hidden IS fighters or weaponry hidden. Just behind, in the underground cave that serves as his makeshift barracks, a commander talked quizzically about the changing demographics of the villages on the other side of the fence. “We saw some Chinese in the wheat factory,” he said, sitting cross-legged among his troops. “Ugur people, I think.” What would happen to his soldiers if they were captured by the forces of the Islamic State, I asked. The question was translated for all the young men and teenagers but went unanswered.

“All these men are volunteers,” said the commander. “We fight to the last drop of our blood. We don’t allow for them to capture us.” Besides, he said, the people they were fighting weren’t good soldiers; they attack haphazardly without thought for their own lives. “We have dream, strategies for the future. We are not scared of Da’ash.” Ten days later, perhaps emboldened by the triumph of its moves into Iraq and the weaponry its fighters were able to bring back, the Islamic State launched a fresh assault on all its borders with Kobani. Its declared aim was to conquer Kobani and defeat the YPG.

Since the first week of July, Kobani has been under intense attack on all fronts. Though the results of the campaign are inconclusive, it’s clear that the Islamists are making steady and incremental gains. In some places, the YPG has been pushed back from their villages and positions; some of its dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London, were mutilated and crucified after they were killed. Despite the best efforts of the YPG to marshal fighters and support from other areas, there is no certainty that Kobani will not be completely overrun.

James Harkin is researching ISIS for the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting